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Snowden filmmaker Laura Poitras: ‘Facebook is a gift to intelligence agencies’

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In January 2013, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Laura Poitras received an e-mail that would eventually change what the world knew about government surveillance. The e-mail came from Edward Snowden, using the alias Citizenfour. That alias is the title of Poitras's latest documentary, an intimate portrait of the eight days she spent in Hong Kong with the former National Security Agency contractor as the first of his revelations made headlines around the world. Citizenfour will open with a limited release in New York, Washington and Los Angeles on Friday. 

Poitras, who received a Pulitzer Prize for her work with The Washington Post and the Guardian covering the revelations, sat down with the Switch to discuss the film and how technical advances may make it easier for us to keep our online lives private. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Andrea Peterson: One of the things I found very interesting about the film is how intimate of a portrayal of Snowden it is. But as I understand it you were already working on a film about government surveillance in a post-9/11 world, and a lot of that didn't end up making it into the final film. Can you talk about how you made the decision to home in?

Laura Poitras: In 2011, I started doing some filming with several people. I was interested in not only NSA surveillance but also what was happening with journalism  and the sort of zeitgeist. So I filmed with Glenn [Greenwald, who worked with Poitras and the Guardian to break the first Snowden stories] -- I said, "Who is this guy in Rio, sort of off the grid, but having this sort of influence?" I wanted to film where he was and where he worked, so I did that. And then I also started filming [NSA whistleblower] William Binney. This was at the time that [NSA whistleblower] Thomas Drake [was facing] espionage charges, and it looked like he was going to trial. It was the first time named NSA people started coming forward. So I started filming with the NSA -- and with Binney, he was sort of the architect of the surveillance system that is now something turned inwards.

I also started filming with Jacob Appelbaum, who does anti-surveillance stuff, trains activists all over the world and works with the Tor Project, etc., as well as with Wikileaks and Julian Assange. I was also interested in talking about how there were these new spaces opening up in journalism, and how with their disclosures they worked with multiple news organizations. It felt like it raised the bar in terms of journalism that was more adversarial to the government.

I was deep into filming when I got the first e-mail from Snowden, which was in January of 2013. I had published a short piece on William Binney in the New York Times in summer of 2012, and that was something [Snowden] had seen, so that's probably one of the reasons he knew I was interested in the topic.

In terms of how it shifted -- it obviously shifted enormously once I was contacted and drawn into the story in a different way. I became a participant in the narrative. And then after returning from Hong Kong, it was clear that two films had been shot and that the one that was about Snowden was one that I was a participant in. That's the trajectory of it. But it was an obvious choice -- it was obvious once we looked at the footage; it was clear that Hong Kong would be such an important piece of the film that it became the organizing principle around which other things fell into place.

A.P.: You actually beat me to my next question. You are a character in the film, you're very key to how everything unfolds. But besides some text interstitials and your reading of e-mails from Snowden, you really don't appear on camera... Was that a conscious choice?

L.P.: I consider that I'm sort of the narrator of the film, and it's obvious that it's told in the first person and it's a subjective film. I also come from a filmmaking tradition where I'm using the camera -- it's my lens to express the filmmaking I do. In the same way that a writer uses their language, for me it's the images that tell the story. So it's very hard for me to be in front of the camera and shoot -- and in Hong Kong, there was no other crew. For me, the camera is my tool for documenting things, so I stay mostly behind it.

A.P.: There were also some very interesting aspects of the whole story that seemed omitted. For instance, and obviously you weren't personally there to film it, but how he escaped from Hong Kong and spent 40 days in a Moscow airport. Also from what I understand some of the back and forth between yourself and Greenwald and Wikileaks about how things should move forward... Can you talk about how you made decisions about what to include? 

L.P.: My films have always kind of been about protagonists -- they are the lens through which the film happens. And I also film in a verite style, so I don't tend to do interviews. So things are happening as I can document them with my camera. I actually did try to go to the airport when he was there, but it didn't happen. I would actually very much liked to have shot that. We also considered doing footage about all of the leaks, but ultimately decided we didn't want to chronicle them because there were so many, and we wanted to follow some specific protagonists in the story. It was largely determined by what I was able to film -- and wanted to keep a sort of subjective perspective.

A.P.: Going back to the main protagonist, there are numerous points in film and elsewhere in media reports in which Snowden is referenced as someone who doesn't want to be the focus of the story. But this film is very clearly about him and the choices he made, along with those that others involved, including you and Glenn, made with him. He was also very insistent upon revealing himself as the source -- in Greenwald’s book he’s said to have already written a manifesto for that purpose before you met in Hong Kong. And at other points in the film Snowden makes several very specific references to martyrdom, at one point saying he was willing to be crucified? Is there a conflict there?

L.P.: A conflict?

A.P.: A conflict between Snowden not wanting to be the focus of the story, but also very clearly being the focus of the story. 

L.P.: What had happened when we were corresponding in April was that he said he was not going to try to hide his identity -- that he would come forward, and that he didn't want me protecting him as a source. The rationale he gave me was that he felt that people should know why he had done it and that he didn't want to hide. And then also, I think he knew that there would be a massive leak investigation and he wanted to come forward before that began. He could have done that before we even met, and I think that's what he thought in April, that we wouldn't have a face-to-face. And then I said, well, if you intend to come forward and reveal your identity I want to meet you and understand your motivation -- and I want to film.

He responded: I don't want to be a big story; it's not about me. And he also had concerns that if we were to meet and anything were to happen, it might stop the reporting. So I gave arguments that this story, even if he didn't want it to be about him, people will cover him -- the media will write about him. So it really wasn't his choice. I also said that I would make sure that I would back things up to reduce the risk of us being at the same place. That was the context in which we began talking about meeting, which ultimately happened several weeks later. In terms of a contradiction, I don't find it to be much of one. I think he didn't want to be the focus, but he knows he is the focus. He doesn't have control over it. It's not something where you get to say, "That's not my wish," because, of course, given what he had done, he was bound to be part of the story.

A.P.: Speaking more broadly, do you think there have been diminishing returns on Snowden’s revelations as they have continued to be unveiled, that the more recent news has been less shocking as the public has become somewhat fatigued by reveal after reveal? 

L.P.: I've been based in Berlin for the past  year, so I feel like I don't have the best sense of what's happening here. So I'm not sure if I can gauge it to respond. I do think the risk with anything like this is that it becomes normalized -- and that that's a genuine risk. But I also think that there are shifts that we're seeing. Right now we have this thing going on between tech companies over encryption and the FBI saying it's the end of the world...

A.P.: You just preempted another of my questions.

L.P.: I think it's clear that there's been a change in public consciousness. Public policy? Maybe not that much. But there's a tech response to this, and I think there are things that we're not seeing that will emerge in the coming months and years. So it's hard to say what effect this is having on the people who build the tools we use to communicate. I think there are things that are not on the surface that are happening.

A.P.: Speaking of tech tools -- honestly, one of the issues with tech tools available is that they aren’t particularly user-friendly. I’ve used Tails, Tor, OTR, etc, but I can’t really imagine getting my parents or grandparents to do so on a regular basis. What can your average Internet user do to protect their online privacy?

L.P.: I would say to people that actually it's not brain surgery -- if you want to communicate securely you don't have to wait on a change in policies. Encryption works, and people can use it -- and certain people should, like journalists. But I agree that it's a bit of a high bar. And I think what we're going to see is a market for privacy that's going to emerge. I think technology companies will come forward and offer tools that are easier to use. I mean, [e-mail encryption tool] PGP is not easy, but it could be, and I think it will be.

A.P.: Do you think there's a bit of conflict between privacy and the fact that technology companies are organizations who also track what people are doing online? Covering cybersecurity, I often think that there are three people who are likely to be watching: governments, cybercriminals and for-profit companies. Who should we be most afraid of? 

L.P.: I think we should certainly be the most worried about the government -- they clearly have the most power. On technology companies, we should be concerned, but we are consenting to that relationship -- and they don't have the same powers. They can help the government find out who your sources are, but they don't have the power to investigate people. Which isn't to say that you shouldn't be concerned  by the amount of data that Google or Facebook has on people. But I do think it's a different situation that government.

A.P.: Is there a risk that when private companies are collecting this type of data they're in effect also enabling government surveillance in some forms?

L.P.:  Sure, don't you think? It totally does. Facebook is a gift to intelligence agencies. People volunteer all their social information.

A.P.: You mentioned earlier that you think that there were two films that came out of your footage. Do you think you're ever going to do the other film? 

L.P.:  Yeah, I am, but I think I'm going to take a break.

A.P.: I'd like to talk a bit about the Freedom of the Press Foundation -- where there is now a nice little cabal of people who are linked to the Snowden story, including Snowden himself, working on things. What's your next plan there?

L.P.: I think we're going to continue to do the sort of crowdsourced funding for journalism tools and pushing for transparency, trying to make that possible. Right now we're putting resources and funding into SecureDrop for other news organizations so they can have a place where whistleblowers can submit documents and tips or information.

I think one of the really exciting things about the organization is that we have a technology board who has all sorts of experience in the free software movement who actually know how to determine what are the good forms of encryption and how to handle peer review. Another thing that's going to happen in the wake of Snowden is there are going to be a lot of security products that are snake oil, right? I think that it's really important that the people who are doing free software and peer review can do vetting and ensure that things are backdoored. I think this is a moment where a lot of foundations are thinking, "Oh, we need to give money for privacy-related things," and I think there will be a lot of tech things that emerge where the Freedom of the Press Foundation can give guidance on what to trust and what not to trust.

A.P.: A lot of the major cybersecurity issues that have come up in recent months have actually involved open source projects that seem to be undersupported in many ways. Are there ways you can think of to provide more oversight than just hope that all of the eyes will catch everything? 

L.P.:  Honestly, I don't have the technological skillset to do that sort of peer review. But I know a lot of people who have devoted many years of their lives to the free software movement, and I do think it should have more support and funding. I know something like TAILS, which I relied on for all of my reporting on this and I know Bart Gellman did, as well, was all developed by people for no money who created a system that made it pretty hard to mess up and not go over encrypted channels.

It's an incredibly important service to journalists, and they've done it I believe basically self-funded. I think it's important to look at the people who are developing those tools and how we can support it. I'm totally dependent on things like the Tor Project and TAILS, and they don't have enough funding from foundations and other sources.